Great Britain

Theatre, West End
 (© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
© Brinkhoff/MoegenburgPaige Britain (Lucy Punch)
 (© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
© Brinkhoff/MoegenburgAsst. Commissioner Donald Doyle Davidson (Ben Mansfield) and Paige Britain (Lucy Punch)
 (© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
© Brinkhoff/MoegenburgCommissioner Sully Kassam (Aaron Neil)
 (© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
 (© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
© Brinkhoff/MoegenburgPaige Britain (Lucy Punch), Garth Ellerington (William Chubb) and Paschal O'Leary (Dermot Crowley)
 (© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Richard Bean’s phone-hacking comedy made a big splash at the National Theatre when it opened, days after the Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks verdicts, having been put together in top secret conditions so as not to prejudice their trial.

In a satire that is, of course, entirely fictional and unrelated to the great Hackmageddon in Wapping, we are flies on the newsroom wall of top tabloid The Free Press.

Here, hot young news editor Paige Britain (Lucy Punch: sexy, evil, and sharp as a suicidal clergyman’s razor), will screw over or screw everyone – including the PM –to get to the top. And it’s all for our entertainment: ‘That’s what we do,’ purrs Britain to the quivering audience. ‘We destroy people’s lives on your behalf.’

Dodgy MPs and paedo-bashing hacks are sleazy-peasy targets. And this could’ve been preachier-than-thou in the hands of any writer other than comic controversialist Richard Bean, whose last NT state-of-the-nation comedy ‘England People Very Nice’ was invaded by Muslims protesting at its outspoken gags about ethnic stereotypes.

Here, he cleverly skirts the potential legal minefield by skewering the culture of tabloids, rather than relying solely on near-the-knuckle caricatures of the real-life phone hackers.

What makes this energetic mess of a play such fun is the feeling that Bean loves the wit and chutzpah of the redtops and, while just about remembering to indict their human consequences, he positively revels in the feast of filth that they create. In this off-colour office comedy, jokes float like turds on a tide of gleeful cynicism and horny power-seeking. And, if and when Coulson and Brooks get back to secretly running the country, Bean’s penned a great series of escalatingly preposterous headlines on the theme of ‘Immigrants eat Queen’s swans’ that they should really take note of.

On a more serious note (and there aren’t many of those), Bean’s play makes the important and accurate point that, as morally repellent as it is to hack the voicemail of a paedophile’s victim, the real issues at stake for Britain here are power and corruption: the special relationship between police, press and politicians where the acquisition of one leads directly to the enjoyment of the other.

Nicholas Hytner’s buzzing direction is spot on. The live cast is excellent, especially Dermot Crowley as the newspaper’s amnesiac gun-toting Irish proprietor, a kind of cross between He Who Must Not Be Named and Martin McGuinness. And Aaron Neil’s pompous dickhead Met chief is mocked in witty filmed YouTube-style mashups where he gets tasered by a flying pig. And the whole shebang has probably benefited from its transfer to the West End where it's no longer completely preaching to the choir, and one or two tabloid readers might actually see it. It's yesterday's news - but this story will run and run.

By: Caroline McGinn


Average User Rating

2.3 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:0
  • 4 star:2
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  • 2 star:3
  • 1 star:2
4 people listening

Taking on such a controversial and current topic you would expect the writer of 'Great Britain' to create a more intelligent and thought provoking story line than the one of a demoralized, patronising and distastefully shallow journalist Paige Britain. As much as it could be seen as clever and creative to introduce a dislikeable main character and it is not an uncommon practice in comedy to completely ridicule the press, politics and the police, one would still normally expect to leave the theatre feeling entertained and intellectually stimulated. In fact, instead of feeling disturbed by corruption and deceitfulness of the media or at least having gained an enriched perspective on the issue, I was left disturbed by not only the poor acting performance by the leading star but - even worse – by an uncomfortably unamusing plot, which lacked depth, content, moral or wit. Pretending to ridicule the press by bringing onto the stage the well known phone hacking scandal, the leading lady who was supposed to represent the roots of corruption and demoralisation was in fact portrayed as an attractive typical western woman of a great success. In contrast, values such as transparency and honesty were represented by embarrassingly incompetent Metropolitan Police Commissioner's character. This makes me question the intention behind the show and values promoted by the author. Luckily, I wasn't the only person expecting a different experience from the Royal Heymarket Theatre. There was a clear division amongst the audience into just a handful of people who sporadically laughed, a few more who left at the interval and a majority who desperately attempted to enhance the experience by voraciously helping themselves to the bar. The show ended with a few seconds long applause, which was probably mostly forced by the general English politeness and suspiciously contrasted the apparent success of the show, which seemed to promote rather than criticise the idea that any story that sells is a good story.

Alice R describes the play well, took my 22 year old son to see this last night at the theatre royal and we both thoroughly enjoyed it and laughed most of the way through, especially at some of the background tabloid headlines. Would not have enjoyed it with my mum who would have found the bad language a bit too much!

Absolute rubbish, left in the second half. The review by GrahamWPA hits the nail on the head. 

I just didn't get it. The woman next to me was snoring after ten minutes. I left at the interval.

My party of 4 went to see this play on Saturday.

I can't say we were entertained. The whole presentation was delivered in a heavy-handed, patronising way and was laboured at times. Indeed, the style is "self-righteous and finger-wagging". I found the soliloquies by Paige Britain toe-curling at times and lecturing. 

The Met Commissioner part was played very well and got most laughs (yes, there were a few). The funniest bits were delivered via the videos that painted a background of news events and projections of satirical tabloid headlines.

Given the quality of cast involved, it was all very disappointing.

The ensemble looked keen to get off the stage at the end, after a very hasty encore.

For a Saturday night, I was initially surprised there were gaps in the seating, but with hindsight I'm not.

The world is waiting for a great satire on the tabloid phone hacking scandal.

Sadly, this play is not it.

Characters too shallow to be convincing, jarring actions that don't lead to each other, one liners that are non sequiters hammered into the script whenever the pace flags.

Not physical enough for farce but not sharp enough for satire. Some of the audience seemed to love it, but I found it deeply unfunny in its obviousness.

Who doesn’t love an excitingly sudden original production? Especially at the National Theatre, where I can get £5 tickets (any 16-25 year olds out there, check out their Entry Pass scheme). The world premiere of Richard Bean’s brand spanking new play ‘Great Britain’, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Billie Piper was dramatically announced just after the equally shocking verdicts of the Leveson inquiry were broadcast.

A clever move on the artistic director’s part; Hytner clearly wanted to have the whole scandal fresh in his audience’s minds, since ‘Great Britain’ is a satirical, darkly comic play all about phone hacking, tabloid newspapers and the way huge organisations like the police, the press and politicians are often corrupt to their very core.

Piper plays Paige Britain, hot-shot News Editor of ‘The Free Press’ (an obvious parallel to ‘The News of the World’); a red-top only out for scandal and stories which can ruin people’s lives in a paragraph. Locked in a never-ending battle for higher readership, and obsessed with her ambition of ‘being invited to a party’ Paige chances upon the biggest break of her career – a way to hack any phone and listen to any message she could possibly want.

This leads us onto a pacy plot full of twists and turns, copious swearing, inventive insults and ominous foreshadowing. Whilst Paige is clearly the protagonist, and Piper does a fantastic job portraying this unlikeable, flint-hearted, cunning fox of a woman, there are several other stand-out members of the large cast. Robert Glenister (who was hilarious in Noises Off) was uproarious as foul-mouthed Chief Editor Wilson Tikkel, knowing a good story by its power to give him an erection; Kiruna Stamell was great as solicitor to the stars Wendy Klinkard (almost the ‘good’ version of Paige; still ambitious and strong, but out for what’s ‘right’) and finally, the man I think became everyone’s highlight, Aaron Neil as Police Commissioner Sully Kassam.

Sully was an Evelyn Waugh-Charles Dickens type character; an absurdity of a human being. Neil played this part with perfect comedic timing and deadpan seriousness. Half the humour came from Sully having absolutely no idea how funny he was being, and Neil captured this ignorance impeccably. Despite his stupidity, however, he was also one of the more loveable characters in the drama, and as such, (SPOILERS) one felt almost sad at his eventual downfall. (END OF SPOILERS). Although, now I think about it, he would be a truly awful person to have in power. Being funny is really no excuse for witlessness (perhaps a comment on the popularity of a certain London Mayor here…?!). As you see, every touch of comedy in this play is simply the coating for a not totally original critique on our society and those in power.

My favourite element of this play, by far, was the set. Not only did the newspaper office look totally realistic (I can actually say this from experience now!), but sliding screens used to change scenes became the highlight of the show. These screens showed us newspaper headlines from broadsheets and tabloids like ‘The Guardener: We think so you don’t have to’ and ‘The Daily Wail’ which ignores all the ongoing news and concentrates on important things like ‘Immigrant Eats Swans’. We got snatches of voicemails about one night stands and tomato soup brands and even some from the Royal Family. But by far the best moments were the ‘Youtube takedowns’ of Sully Kassam. As soon as he’d finished giving another absurd speech, we were treated to the auto-tuned version of it. I just wish the NT would upload it – it’s the ‘Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife’ kinda deal.

Anyway, overall this is a really fun afternoon/evening out, with plenty of brilliantly witty lines, great acting (I need to mention Oliver Chris here as Asst. Commissioner Donald Doyle Davidson, showing how those with good intentions can become warped by the system, and adding a note of poignancy and tragedy to the ending) and perfect staging. I’m not saying it’s going to say anything you haven’t be thinking already; the events are almost exactly those of Leveson Trial fame, so these issues have probably been scurrying around your heads for a while now. Well worth going to see, and a fantastic accomplishment on the part of Bean, but not quite five-out-of-five worthy.